Breathing seems to be important and many would say it’s the most important aspect of life. You can go without food for a month, water for a week, but only 3-5 minutes without breathing. We breathe 12-20 times per minute at rest, adding up to 17 000-30 000 breaths per day. Breath brings life. Without it we would die almost instantly. I think it’s safe to say then breathing is quite important.
The way you breathe is equally important. Some people breathe using the chest predominantly, and some use the belly. Both have different effects on the body. Chest breathing tends to be shallower, stimulating a stress response which causes upper body tension. Belly breathing is much deeper stimulating a relaxed state. To determine what type of breather you are, place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Breathe naturally and notice which hand moves more and when does it move. If the hand over the chest moves mostly while breathing, it would mean you’re a chest breather and vice versa. Is your breathing choppy, or is it smooth? Is it shallow and fast, or deep and slow? Are you a chest breather, or belly breather?
Breath and the body
You have the autonomic nervous system which is made up of sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. Sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is the fight and flight response. When you experience danger, this system kicks in, releases cortisol, adrenalin which causes heart rate to increase, breathing rate increases. This is done to either avoid or fight the stress perceived. After stress has been dealt with or rid of, the parasympathic nervous system (PSNS) comes into play, bringing the body down to a balance, lowering cortisol, adrenaline, decrease heart rate which allows for a rest and digestive state, rebuilding of the body and reducing inflammation.
Polyvagal Nerve theory states
Most of the pathways of the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS) travel through two large nerves. The vagus nerve which exists the brain stem on each side and continue down throughout the body connected to the internal organs. About 20% of messaging goes from the brain to body while 80% goes from body to the brain, telling the brain what’s happening with the body.
With regards to breathing, the respiratory system has chemical, pressure and stretch receptors which are activated during breathing. With every exhale, the stretch receptors are activated and send messages to the brain via vagus nerve. The vagus nerve feeds the part of the brain responsible for emotion, perception, judgement, thoughts, and behaviours. The vagus nerve also has significant effects on our ability to trust, love and connect, feel empathy, communicate. Because breathing has a direct impact on the vagus nerve, we have the ability to send messages via our nervous system using breath work to quiet the mind, reduce defensiveness, over activity, create a sense of safety, closeness, being loving and loved.
By changing the pattern of our breathing, we change the information being sent to the brain and literally change mind-body state. Every physiological, psychological and emotional state has a pattern of breathing. When you change one, the other changes
Heart rate variability (HRV)
Heart rate variability is the ability of the heart to accelerate and decelerate in relation to changes in the internal and external environment. The range of this variability reflects your capacity to adapt to and cope with change. This is correlated to longevity.
When we breathe in, heart rate speeds up. It inhibits the PSNS. When we exhale, PSNS kicks in and slows everything down. The more you stress, the less the heart rate speeds up and down with every breath. Therefore, it is good to have a high HRV. A healthy heart rate is always adjusting to its environment. It is responsive, adapting moment to moment. Slow paced breathing increases HRV. Breathing at a rate of six breaths per minute improves HRV.
These continual fluctuations and adaptations in heart rate is associate with positivity, balanced, centeredness, relaxed, energized and calmness, which is known as Heart Coherence. Studies have shown this state can be attained within five minutes. By breathing in for 5 seconds and breathing out for 5 seconds over a period of 5 minutes, all the above-mentioned benefits are yours. Perform this twice a day, you will notice heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels decrease by up to 20% and an increase in oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin as well as alpha brain waves. All these benefits produced in just 5 mins and last up until 4 hours. However, you need to do this for a minimum of 7 days over a period of time in order to gain the benefits.
Two types of breathing
Breath Awareness: you do not consciously breathe but allow the breath to move on its own. You only observe the breath. This helps you become aware of the body, feelings, sensations, perceptions and emotions arising or present. Notice without judging. You will realize nothing is happening to you. It is simply just happening. Great sense of freedom.
Conscious breathing: you deliberately control the manner in which you breathe. Giving your breathing a certain pattern. E.g.: breathing 6-8 breaths per minute. Inhalation for 5 secs, exhalation for 5 secs.
When you deliberately hold your breath in, you find yourself dealing with very powerful feelings, sensations and urges. The brain gets flooded with 300% more blood for about 30 mins after a long breath hold. The goal of such a practice is to learn to relax into these intense feelings and/or tolerate them. This technique is beneficial if you have unresolved feelings, memories which needs to be addressed. To perform this technique, hold your breath for as long as you can, until you feel your diaphragm start to flutter. At that point, old it for few more seconds and then release it completely. When holding your breath in, you want to consciously make the effort to relax completely.
In the previous article, we’ve learned the importance of nose breathing and how we were made to breathe through the nose. To recap, the nose has hairs that filter dust, and mucus membranes that trap particles. It conditions the air, either warming or cooling it. When we breathe throughout the nose, we produce more nitric oxide, which has antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties. Like carbon dioxide, nitric oxide is a vasodilator which helps with blood pressure and many more. The nose also has turbinate structure that spiral the air to the lungs where it should go.
Breathing for headaches, general pain and fatigue
Breathe gently into the pain area, moving all your attention to that point. Notice the pain and how it feels. Does it feel dull, sharp, local or referred? Exhale softly and deeply, relaxing those muscles around the pain and tension. Become comfortable in the sensation and feel it go at its own time. This could be done until you feel the difference in the body. A good start is 5-10 minutes.
Our lungs are the principal excretory organ for weight loss since oxygen plays an important role in burning fat. When two kilograms of fat is oxidized, 20% of it turns into water and is eliminated, and about 80% is excreted as carbon dioxide. Thus you lose weight. Whatever exercise you do, breathing more deeply can add to fat-burning potential. Inhale breathe deeply, exhale breathe deeply out.
Breathe in 4 secs, Hold for 7 secs, breathe out for 8 secs as recommended by Dr Andrew Weil. Should do 5-8 cycles to attain the full benefits. This stimulates the PSNS which causes a relaxed and digestive state, stimulating melatonin to be released which is known as the sleeping hormone.
This could be an addiction to anything. You should actively inhale and passively exhale with no pause or gaps between the breaths. Your breath is continuous circular rhythm. Breathe into your heart. Don’t control the exhale at all. Do this for 5 minutes.
Brown, R., & Gerbarg, P. (2012). The healing power of the breath: Simple techniques to reduce stress and anxiety, enhance concentration, and balance your emotions. Shambhala Publications.
Brown, R. P., Gerbarg, P. L., & Muench, F. (2013). Breathing practices for treatment of psychiatric and stress-related medical conditions. Psychiatric Clinics, 36(1), 121-140.
Grof, C., & Grof, S. (2010). Holotropic Breathwork: A New Approach to Self-exploration and Therapy (SUNY Series in Transpersonal and Humanistic Psychology). State University of New York Press.
Orr, L. (1998). Breaking the death habit: The science of everlasting life. Frog Books.
Porges, S. W. (2001). The polyvagal theory: phylogenetic substrates of a social nervous system. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 42(2), 123-146.